The wages of cruelty: Tormented by impeachment, Trump torments the weakest

As he feels ever more cornered, the president reveals himself, threatening to intern homeless people in camps

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 30, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

A homeless man sleeps in front of a luxury auto dealership in San Francisco, California on June, 10, 2016. (Getty/Josh Edelson)
A homeless man sleeps in front of a luxury auto dealership in San Francisco, California on June, 10, 2016. (Getty/Josh Edelson)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally decided to begin a formal impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump. The final offense against the United States Constitution and the rule of law which forced Pelosi and the Democratic Party to take this long-overdue step was the recent revelation that Donald Trump has apparently abused the power of the presidency in a scheme to extort and bribe the president of Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election by "investigating" Joe Biden for nonexistent crimes.

This is now the second time that Donald Trump has colluded with a foreign country (or at least attempted to) in order to manipulate a presidential election on his behalf. There are dozens of reasons that Donald Trump should be impeached, convicted and removed from office. Although it is likely that such a charge cannot be included in any formal articles of impeachment against a president of the United States, Trump's cruelty is a stain on the United States and a betrayal of the presidential oath of office, in which the chief executive promises to be a good steward and caretaker for the country.

Donald Trump and his regime are obsessed with individuals and groups they deem to be “illegal people,” targeting them for special cruelty and abuse. Trump has used that meanness to pay the psychological wages of his supporters.

The most obvious target of this obsession are the nonwhite migrants and refugees whom the Trump administration has detained by the thousands. This is part of a larger campaign of cruelty that includes denying access to public aid and other assistance, children being been stolen from their parents, sick and dying people threatened with deportation and the loss of urgent medical care, the potential revocation of birthright citizenship, denial of access to public education, and ICE and Border Patrol raids designed to traumatize entire communities. The Trump regime does not hide its hatred towards nonwhite immigrants, refugees, and migrants. The evil is naked. Last week it was announced that the Trump regime will now be referring to those groups of people as "aliens" (they were formerly described in federal laws and regulations as "foreign nationals"). This language is intentionally designed to dehumanize nonwhite immigrants, migrants and refugees with the goal of legitimating cruelty and abuse against them.

The Trump administration's newest targets for abuse are America’s homeless people, a population recently estimated at more than 550,000 people. Focusing his ire against California in particular, Trump is threatening to put homeless people in government camps, as the Washington Post recently reported:

Among the ideas under consideration are razing existing tent camps for the homeless, creating new temporary facilities and refurbishing existing government facilities, two other officials said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the planning hasn’t been publicly revealed. The changes would attempt to give the federal government a larger role in supervising housing and health care for residents.

Needless to say, Trump and his lackeys are not acting out of sincere concern for the safety and dignity of human beings who happen to not have homes. Instead, they are seeking to criminalize poverty and attacking America's largest state, which is overwhelmingly Democratic. On Twitter, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, highlighted the Trump regime’s hypocrisy and real motives:

They've proposed drastically shrinking or eliminating federal programs that keep the lowest-income people affordably housed; tripling rents for the lowest-income subsidized residents and raising rents for all others; evicting 100,000 people, including 55,000 American children, from subsidized housing; and allowing homeless shelters to discriminate and refuse shelter to transgender and other LGBTQ people.

The solution to homelessness is affordable homes not further criminalization, punishing poor people for their poverty, sweeping people experiencing homelessness into increasingly unsafe areas, or warehousing people in untenable and unsustainable conditions.

Trump does not hide his contempt for homeless people. He recently told reporters that homeless people have overrun the country, ruining "our best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige."

This targeting of homeless people is especially sinister: In fact, Trump's administration has threatened to designate the homeless  as human toxic waste, to be dealt with by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Hill provided these details:

President Trump on Wednesday said he expects the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to slap San Francisco with a violation notice in the coming days related to pollution associated with the city’s homeless population.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Trump again took aim at Los Angeles and San Francisco over the volume of homeless people in each city. But he escalated his rhetoric, saying an announcement citing San Francisco for environmental violations would come in the next week.

“There’s tremendous pollution being put into the ocean because they’re going through what’s called the storm sewer that’s for rainwater,” Trump said. “And we have tremendous things that we don’t have to discuss pouring into the ocean. You know there are needles, there are other things.”

“It’s a terrible situation — that’s in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he continued. “And we’re going to be giving San Francisco, they’re in total violation, we’re going to be giving them a notice very soon.”

Donald Trump leads a racial authoritarian regime. As with other governments of that type, referring to entire communities of people as “human garbage,” “pollution.” “rats”, “vermin” or “refuse” plays an important role in encouraging and legitimizing eliminationist violence.

Trump’s harassment of homeless people reflects the fact that today’s conservatives and Republican Party are fully in thrall to neoliberalism and the culture of cruelty, a value system that views poor people — and other vulnerable and marginalized individuals and groups — as human surplus, “useless eaters” to be disposed of through Malthusian and social Darwinist public policy.

America’s homeless people are but the newest addition to a long list of individuals and groups that Donald Trump and his regime have categorized as illegal people — less than full members of the polity and therefore second-class citizens. That makes them legitimate and acceptable targets for cruelty, abuse and interpersonal as well as state-sponsored violence.

In this fascist conception of citizenship, liberals, progressives and others who oppose Donald Trump and his agenda are committing treason against the United States and should be punished appropriately. This is especially true of whistleblowers such as the person who revealed Trump's Ukraine scandal.

African-American athletes and others who protest white supremacy and other forms of social injustice are deemed by the Trump regime to be traitors who should leave the United States.

Those who support the Democratic Party — especially nonwhites and young people — are to be deprived of the right to vote.

Members of the LGBT community are to be denied basic human rights, including the right to marry, live a life free from discrimination and other unfair treatment based on their humanity, and even to enter the U.S. as the partners of foreign diplomats or UN officials.

The reproductive rights and freedoms of women are to be curtailed, if not wholly eliminated.

Disabled people are not allowed to show happiness on social media, or other evidence they are living full and empowered lives, lest they be denied disability support and other social benefits.

Poverty will be “eliminated” by denying food and other help to millions of poor Americans and others in need.

The human and civil rights of black and brown Americans and other marginalized groups are being gutted by a revanchist regime, the Republican Party and a broader conservative movement which considers most of the social and political progress of the 20th century as an existential threat or a dire mistake to be “corrected."

Writing at the New Yorker, Masha Gessen details how Trump's movement seeks to redefine the boundaries of political community in American society:

By turning unspoken assumptions into hateful rally chants, Trump is not merely destroying the norms of political speech but weaponizing them. He is cashing in on the easy trick of saying out loud what others barely dare to think…. Trump has initiated a radical renegotiation of belonging in this country and then monopolized it. This is what happens first: a political force seizes the power to define its members as insiders and certain others as intruders. This is done in the name of protection of the motherland, which the newly marginalized are said to hate. Everything else follows.

As with other fascists and authoritarians Donald Trump’s obsession with “illegal people” — and the continual addition of new enemy Others to that list — is a way to police the boundaries of political community and to define who counts as a “real American.”

Trump’s “populist” supporters are compelled towards that narrow formulation of “Americanness” because it speaks to a general sense of insecurity (and other emotional and intellectual deficits) fueled by the fear that nonwhite people (or women, or gays and lesbians, or "liberals," or some nebulous Other) is taking over “their" country.

In Trumpism and other types of authoritarian and fascist belief systems, “illegal people” are a standard against which a feeling of empowerment among the Herrenvolk — they who are the real “destined people” or "master race" — can be measured and leveraged.

This is also a form of distraction and manipulation: Trump’s “illegal people” can divert the attention of his “white working class” supporters from the fact that they are materially and economically being hurt by his policies. The emotional pleasures of racial and ethnic resentment and the accompanying false sense of superiority (i.e. “white identity politics”) temporarily seem to function as substitutes for living lives of meaning and value.

In 1960, President Lyndon B. Johnson summarized that white racial logic in a famous conversation with Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.”

The skillful authoritarian will continually recalibrate the boundaries of his political community. This becomes especially necessary as the authoritarian senses that his power is waning, and he needs to maintain “legitimacy” among his public and minions.

Donald Trump’s supporters believe that they will never be one of the “illegal people” targeted for cruelty and punishment. The myopic delusions of the Trump faithful, however, will offer no protection. Chanting “Send her back” or "Build the wall" as though those were magical incantations will not save them.

As Trump feels imperiled by impeachment and the 2020 election and whatever other threadbare remains of democratic accountability still exist in America, he will shrink his group of supporters down to the extreme true believers and dead-enders. Everyone else is expendable. Trump’s supporters, especially those who belong to the fabled white working class, would be wise to study theologian Martin Niemöller’s famous wisdom and warning, issued after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Sooner rather than later, many of Donald Trump’s supporters will find themselves fearful and without friends.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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